A discovery that would open up his heart and his memories was simply waiting under the bed
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
Frank put up with music.
He put up with it in a way that a sleeping cat deals with a toddler tugging on it's tail: ears folded back in distain and tail twitching in obvious annoyance, but stubbornly refusing to move to an uninterrupted space.
Usually Frank blocked out music, and sometimes he just plain avoided it. When he hard it on the speakers at the corner store during his frequent cigarette trips, his hairy ears recognized it as unnecessary noise, a waste of his time and a waste of airspace. He greeted the tune by coughing loudly and nastily, thick phlegm rattling in his ribs, and usually setting off the young nurse in training who worked the cash register late nights.
"Cough's not getting any better," she chirped with a sickening, sugary smile to the old man, who usually responded with a well-rehearsed scowl as he snatched up his three nightly packs of life-saving nicotine.
Frank was in his late 70's and looked far older for the scornful expression he always wore. Though he retired from sales over 25 years earlier, his most unfortunate wardrobe was kept in commission. He was reasonably clean, well, at least for a man who'd never had a wife to nag him to bathe and clip his nails regularly. He was never the marrying type. He wasn't any type at all. He was simply isolated and closed-minded. He lived alone in a dark basement suite below a dry-cleaning business and kept the yellowed curtains shut even on the sunniest and loveliest of days.
It was on a senior's savings day in mid-December at the local discount food warehouse when music finally made its way into Frank's lonely life. He was orcing a squeaking grocery cart burdened with instant oatmeal, Kraft dinner and other gluey bachelor meals past blue-haired matrons buying ingredients for the weekend's Christmas dinner and other grimacing old men in 30-year-old polyester trousers when something from above him made the fuzz in his wrinkled ears twitch.
It was a high sound, a sweet and lovely sound and it was surrounding him. Frank almost plowed into a pyramid of canned corn for to find the origin of this most pleasing and wondrous noise. A young violinist was busking outside the store as she had been for the past two years, come sun or snow, every weekend. Frank had learned to ignore her squeaks and squawks. But today was different. She was playing a simple and almost ancient tune with fingerless gloves in the winter cold.
The simple melody of only a few notes wafted up and down, but oh, it was so sweet. Frank suddenly realised it was the very tune mother played for him every night as he went to sleep as a small child. Frank's eyes nearly watered as he abandoned his cart and fled the store for the comfort of his home, away from any more music. Away from his memories.
A few sleepless days passed and Frank awoke in a mad mood as usual, not knowing or caring it was Chrismas morning. He immediately began looking for a plastic lighter which he was sure he dropped under the bed in the middle of the night. His joints and muscles ached in protest as he got down on all fours to retrieve the escaped tool for his dirty habit. His eyes narrowed on a dark shape under the iron bed frame. He reached out tentatively past the dust bunnies and pulled out a black, coffin shaped box about 2 feet in length.
It was his mother's violin. "Esther Smith: Leaf Rapids, Manitoba" was hand-written on the tag attached to the handle of the case. His hands shaked as he opened the case to find the violin sleeping serenely under a silk scarf. His mother's scarf. She left it to him this way so many years ago.
Frank remembered the last time she played it, lying in bed frail and pale. It was just before his sixth Christmas and he didn't understand why mother couldn't get up and celebrate the day; he didn't understand sickness or death. Mother pulled the bow weakly across the strings, but still the old instrument cooed like a soft white dove. She played the song that only a few old fiddlers still knew from their homeland, a song that was almost entirely lost with their relocation to Canada and that only a handful of players knew.
"Mother is tired dear," she coughed. "Please put my violin away for me." He obeyed. "And Frank," she said. "Make sure that it never stops singing." As he left the room Esther Smith fell into a peaceful sleep and never woke again.
The violin was the only thing he was allowed to keep when the social workers took him. He put up a such a strong fight that three grown adults conceded and allowed the child to take it on the long rail trip to BC. Frank was then passed from distant relatives to cousins and then on to foster homes until he was grown. The violin always stayed with him, but also stayed shut away in its box.
For the first time in over 70 years Frank opened the violin case and discovered a completely unexpected Christmas gift from above. He smelled his mother's scent on the silk scarf cocooning her violin. And there, kneeling beside his bed on the cold, wooden floor, Frank wept for the loss of his mother for the first time.
The violin consumed Frank. What used to be days of chain smoking and literally watching the wallpaper peel away from the wall became days of scratching the bow across the strings, experimenting and improving. As winter passed he treated the violin to a new set of strings and a polish and the bow to a new ribbon of white horsehair. Soon he opened the curtains and let the new spring sunlight warm his skin and glisten off the tiger-striped grain of the instrument. The violin and Frank both seemed to have awoken from a long coma and were enjoying their new life together.
As the months and years went by, Frank found he no longer made any late night trips in the snow to the corner store for his cigarettes, but rather trips to the library to get his eager hands on more sheet music. He whistled chirpy tunes at the bus stop and made converation with people he used to pass in silence. He taught himself the scales and the notes and a healthy vibrato until one day he was producing a sweet tone.
"Now it's time to play her song," he smiled to himself.
His old, arthritic fingers found their way expertly around the fingerboard and suddenly he was playing Mother's homeland song. He had tried all those years to force the song out of his out for fear he would feel the pain of his loss, but the music was still there. It was waiting to be born from his hands.
This same song had revisited him at the grocery store that fateful day several years back and wouldn't leave his mind since. After all that practice he was finally playing it and was giddy with joy and disbelief. His grimace was permanently replaced with a grin of satisfaction and joy.
Frank's newfound happiness survived the grueling tests at the hospital in the coming months. Music notes swam in his head like golden coy when his doctor explained how the cancer was spreading. Frank was in another world, a world of music and wonder, and death didn't scare him anymore. His had learned to live and it felt as if not even death could take that away from him.
Once again he found himself fighting off adults who later resigned to let him take the violin with him into the intensive care ward. He played it for the other dying people and for himself when the others were too tired or weak to listen anymore. He prayed that the music might touch their lives as it touched his.
At night in the darkness and silence Frank reflected how the violin had changed his life and connected him to his mother in a way he had never imagined were possible. It was like he was breathing the same air she was. The violin was a conduit to her spirit and memory and her love. His only regret in life now was that he hadn't discovered it all sooner.
It was on a snowy Christmas Eve night that Frank Smith stopped breathing and passed away, peaceful and contented. The morning nurse discovered the violin, wrapped in a sweet-smelling silk scarf inside the relic of a case. An envelope accompanied the package.
"May this violin find its way to the musician whose music found its way to me," it said on the envelope's face. Scribbled beside it was the name of a supermarket. The card inside read, "To the kid with the fiddle: Merry Christmas! Make sure that it never stops singing."
Merry Christmas from Fiddleheads Violin Studio!